German immigrant Bill Geiger prospered in Fergus

Today there are few immigrants from western Europe to Wellington County, or indeed, to anywhere in Canada. A half century ago, circumstances were much different. Hundreds of Europeans came to Wellington County in the early 1950s. Most numerous on the list were those from Holland and Germany.

This column has dealt a couple of times with Dutch immigrants. Large numbers of them came to the Drayton area, but others were scattered across the county. Many of them were farmers and farm workers, at least initially. Some had learned trades in the homeland, and soon those people began their own businesses, many of which continue to this day.

The Canadian government had a policy at that time of directing immigrants to farm work, which was less attractive to Canadians than factory work in larger centres. Many of the Germans initially began their lives in Canada as farm labourers, but there was a sprinkling of young, skilled workers among them.

One of the latter group of migrants to Wellington County was a slim, smiling young man with a distinctive brushcut, named Willi Geiger. He had been working for a gravestone and monument maker in Brantford, and was answering an advertisement placed by James Howard and Son, the Fergus monument firm.

Geiger had been 19 when the war had ended. He grew up in a small town near Karlsruhe, in southern Germany, not far from the French border. The young man had an artistic flair, and enrolled in an art school, with the intention of becoming a sculptor. Later, he took further training in Switzerland and Italy. After graduating he worked for a German firm restoring war-damaged churches and other buildings, and then for a monument carving firm. By then he was married.

Seeking better opportunities, he emigrated to Canada with his wife, Lore, and took that first job in Brantford. Both he and Lore had acquired, before coming to Canada, a good command of the English language.

Later, the couple was happy to settle into the small town atmosphere of Fergus. Decades later Geiger embellished the tale of his first visit to Fergus, saying that he had arrived in town with only a dime in his pocket, and that a stranger had offered him a cup of coffee at the Black-and-White restaurant, and then helped him look for a job. That friendliness had prompted him to settle there, he liked to say.

Bill Geiger soon established himself as the key employee with the Howard firm. He anglicized his name to Bill, and Lore was happy to be known as Laura. She found work in the office of Beatty Brothers.

In 1962, Bill acquired the Howard firm, which he renamed Geiger Monuments. The location moved from the cramped and awkward St. Andrew Street location to new facilities on Tower Street at the southern boundary of Fergus.

Geiger quickly built a reputation for his skill and artistic sense as a carver of monuments. He was a man who contrasted sharply with common stereotypes of rigid, humourless Germans. Though serious and businesslike around the shop, he enjoyed exchanging wisecracks and joking with those people who had a sense of humour. Sometimes he would entertain a roomful of people at a party or other function with his bottomless supply of ribald stories.  

Always gregarious and anxious to pull his weight in the community, Geiger became involved with the Fergus Chamber of Commerce, and eventually served a term as president. In 1966, he was a charter member of the town’s new Rotary Club.

Geiger became involved with the Highland Games organization, and served two terms as its president. Though lacking even a single drop of Scottish blood, he took delight in donning a kilt, and confusing visitors as he talked with his unmistakable German accent.

A pet project of his was the Menzies River Beautification Project, which involved the cleaning up of the north bank of the Grand River, in Fergus, and the revitalization of the old Templin Gardens. He also served as a member of the Belsyde Cemetery Commission.

In 1978, Geiger branched into a new business venture, when, with four partners, he purchased the former Beatty Brothers Grand River plant, which most recently had been the home of Belwood Appliances. The partners cleaned up the property, made some renovations, and opened as the Fergus Market, with space leased out to various vendors. With retailing on St. Andrew Street in decline, the Fergus Market gave a boost to downtown Fergus, and continues to do so to this day.

In 1986, Bill Geiger received recognition for his contributions to the town over the previous 30 years when he was named Fergus Citizen of the Year. As well as his time and effort devoted to community activities, Geiger was active in professional organizations. He served a term as president of the Ontario Monument Builders Association. He attended conventions of monument makers in Canada and the United States. In 1975, he received a first place award for design work from the Monument Builders of North America, and subsequently a further four awards.

He enjoyed tailoring a tombstone to suit the personality of the person it commemorated, and preferred to discuss designs at length with the next-of-kin. He kept his eyes open for new styles and techniques, and was quick to try new methods and equipment in his shop.

In the late 1950s, Geiger rebuilt an old industrial ruin at Aboyne into a residence for himself and his wife, Lore. He appreciated the stonework of the nineteenth century masons who built the original structure. His design turned the old building into a modest one-bedroom home, preserving as much of the original stone work as possible.

Later, Geiger designed a more substantial residence on Union Street in Fergus, to a unique 10-sided design.

In his late 50s, Bill Geiger began to suffer from heart problems, and later was diagnosed with cancer. He was hospitalized early in 1991, and transferred to the cardiac unit at Hamilton General Hospital, where he died on March 30. He was only 64. Lore survived him for less than two years. She had health problems of her own, and died of cancer in December 1993, also aged 64.

The Geigers had no children. They generously provided bequests totally almost $100,000 to local organizations, half to the Cancer Society, and other sums to the Victorian Order of Nurses, Groves Hospital, and to a scholarship fund through the Rotary Club that continues to provide a gift to a graduating student from the Fergus High School who is pursuing studies in fine art.

During his 35 years in Fergus, Bill Geiger not only built a career as a successful craftsman and businessman, but also became a valuable citizen, devoting much energy and effort to improving his adopted community. His career can serve as an example to others of what can be accomplished by a transplant to Canada.  

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That Police Photo – Two weeks ago this column featured a photograph taken at the Wellington County Police Association’s 1959 annual meeting in Palmerston. One of the officers was unidentified. More than a dozen readers, including a couple of family members, responded to that column, and all agreed that the unidentified man was Garnet Hamilton, an Elora constable who succeeded Bill Jank as the Elora police chief about 1961. The first call came from Ivy Leith of Clifford, whose husband, Charlie Leith, is in the photo as an officer with the Palmerston force. A couple of the callers believed that Garnet Hamilton was the youngest chief in the history of Wellington County. Unfortunately, no one could offer more details about the old Wellington County Police Association.





Stephen Thorning